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Space to quantum: decade-defining budget

Gateway House (GH): What are the government’s priorities in Budget 2020’s allocations for the space sector? How much involvement will the private sector have?

Chaitanya Giri (CG): Gaganyaan and Chandrayaan-3 are at the top of the government’s list of priorities – and the marginally increased budget reflects this. Gaganyaan, being a multi-ministerial, multi-agency megaproject, allocations for it will come not only via the Department of Space (DoS), but also the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Defence.

The growing space budget must be viewed not merely as an allocation, but a seed fund. As the government increases the budget, its R&D agencies will be able to reach out to the private sector with the same money for co-development, turn-key solutions, and supplies. This will help in leading to more contracts, which means the money trickles into the market.

The larger the budget, the greater the number of projects, with numerous opportunities for public-private collaboration. I am sure the private sector is using such contracts to build its innovation and invention portfolio. Thus, space exploration will help the nation in the long run.

In the coming years, as India forms specific parliamentary legislation for space activities, things will change completely for space private enterprise. The government is beginning to nearly equalise the DoS’ revenue generation and its capital allocation. This shows India is beginning to view space as a major economic undertaking: this is a really good sign.

GH: Is there potential for India’s space industry to open itself up to foreign players?

CG: Space is a strategic pursuit for which India aims to build indigenous capacities. There aren’t many countries that will want to offer us anything, and even if they did, it is likely to come at a steep price. The government ought to open itself up to foreign players, but with caveats, based on the greater national interest.

Yet, space is not an entirely solitary pursuit and safeguarding national interests need not always be regarded a lonely walk into the future. India has friends – and they assist to the best of their abilities. India is already launching satellites for numerous countries. The U.S. has always helped us in our planetary explorations; France and Russia are helping us with Gaganyaan. Japan is interested in going to the Moon along with us.

GH: How important is it for the government to allocate more money to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)?

CG: This year, there will be allocations for the Chandrayaan-3 lander, the orbiter mission to Venus, and the new space launch site, coming up in Tamil Nadu. But the biggest chunk will be for Gaganyaan.

New Space India Limited (NSIL), which was set up last year, will take spin-off technologies, developed within DoS labs, try to commercialise it and thereby generate revenue. We’re lagging tremendously behind other space agencies in commercialising space technologies. NSIL has just begun to fill that void.

The government has been proactive in comprehending the changing space technological paradigm around the world, but is struggling to forge synergies with the private sector to keep pace with the rapid advances being made by the Industry 4.0 revolution. The flagging pace here is because of weak public-private ‘lung capacity’ in innovation.

This is why it’s important for India’s conglomerates to support R&D for strategic technology. Or else, they can scout for, and purchase, strategic technologies from national laboratories and from around the world, start filling up the intellectual property repository, and be the innovation engine of India’s space programme.

GH: What changes do you think need to happen?

The private sector should start investing in R&D through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) avenue and pick up technologies from government laboratories that are up for transfer en masse, even if it requires incremental tweaking for making them market-ready.

Or else, most of our companies will continue to license-manufacture ageing technologies, originating from overseas. Indian companies must only get into agreements with foreign players where a new cutting-edge technology is brought into the Indian market. Our companies will have to understand their immense and untapped role in speeding up India’s innate capacity for innovation.

GH: What kind of relief were startups expecting in Budget 2020?

CG: I don’t think startups were expecting any specific relief measures. Besides, there are not many space startups in India. Space startups will have to come up with novel solutions and products that fill up the missing capacities in India’s space ecosystem. It is only then that they will grow and become noticeable enough for the government to design reforms specifically for them. They must find – and rule – the market, aim to become unicorns. Until then, generic reforms, designed for all startups, will apply to space startups too.

GH: What kind of spillover effect will the Budget’s allocations for ISRO have on other sectors of the economy?

CG: The rise in the space budget has substantial positive bearings on the research and development (R&D) of new space-ready technologies, such as composites, Artificial Intelligence (AI), medicine, defence, Information Technology (IT), semiconductors, telecommunications, and metallurgy.

ISRO cannot manufacture numerous components on its own in assembly-line fashion. Besides, being an agency, it need not adopt a mass-production approach. Large companies, which have competencies to build such space-ready technologies, will continue to supply to ISRO.

There is great scope for new-age startups and companies with emerging, Industry-4.0 technologies in their portfolio to form industrial collaborations with ISRO – without supplying competencies that already exist. The more novel their product the greater their chances of assimilation into the Indian space ecosystem.

GH: Will India ramp up its security in space?

CG: Yes, it will. This will be another way to commercialise the space sector. Or else, companies that don’t find their way into the civil domain, but possess certain technologies with defence applications, are likely to go to the Defence Space Agency.

GH: Should India have a space force?

CG: There are three horizontal pedestals: a space force, a space command, and a space agency. What we have set up is an agency, the Defence Space Agency. The Russians and French have military space commands. The U.S. launched a space force last year.

These are three different organisations in terms of scale, the human resources involved, and mandate. So, we’re not going the way of a space force: we don’t have the means for that. But we do want to protect our assets in space, not be vulnerable to threats coming from other countries via space. Therefore, India has to start thinking along these lines. The current threat perception does not require it to have a space force.

GH: In Budget 2020, Rs. 8,000 crore has been allocated to quantum technology. What are the implications of this for the space sector?

CG: This allocation, spread over the next five years, was a pleasantly surprising announcement, one without precedent in the Industry 4.0 domain. The amount will be assigned to the National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications (NMQTA), which will be governed by the Ministry of Science and Technology. This is also the single-largest allocation made to one of its specific project verticals.

Without getting too overwhelmed by such largesse, one must understand that India is slightly late to the party. China is probably a world leader in quantum technologies by now. It operates a quantum-encrypted communications satellite, called Mozi, to undertake long-range communications with ground stations in the Tibet Autonomous Region that are located not very far from the Line of Actual Control, bordering India.

Yet, there is immense scope for the NMQTA to stimulate R&D in cryogenics, new-age post-silicon semiconductors, materials science, deep-field astronomy, big data synthesis, and interplanetary communications. These are all important areas for the space sector.

India’s new Defence Space Agency must also aim to build a quantum-encrypted communications satellite. Alongside, other agencies, such as ISRO, the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), Department of Biotechnology, Indian Railways, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, banking, insurance, and the finance industry, need to soon begin to comprehend the applications of quantum computing. The faster this happens, the sooner quantum can become a commercially viable technology, which will be in India’s best interest.

Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.

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